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Apple to shaft indie developers?

By on February 2, 2009

iPod touch (Source: Barnaby Willitts-King)PocketGamer has been picking up a growing story that Apple plans to launch a premium AppStore. The story seems to be gaining traction with a number of other sites (such as IGN Wireless and Slide to Play) getting confirmation from independent sources although, as PocketGamer’s Owain Bennallack says, “let’s hope we’re not all quoting the same mischievious developer”.

The proposal is for the AppStore to offer titles at a price point of $19.99, which is a massive step up from the current prices which range from free to $4.99. This would be a godsend for struggling indie developers keen to make a living from developing cool, niche, innovative games.

Only they’re not allowed in.

The rumours all suggest that the higher price point will only be available to a restricted number of large publishers. To me, this beggars belief.

Apple’s problem is that it needs good quality intellectual property and high quality games on the AppStore. Currently, the big guns are wary of the iPhone, which is often seen as a “mobile” platform (with all the negative connotations that entails), has a long tail of low quality games, and only offers publishers low price points. So I completely see the argument that there should be a higher price point to offer new ways for the iPhone to compete with DS and PSP titles.

But does it really make sense only to offer this price point to the likes of EA and Gameloft? It sure makes sense for the publishers:

  • Being a successful publisher is all about dominating distribution (as Mitch Lasky of Benchmark argued). The AppStore is currently a level playing field but this proposal would give change that and give them a real advantage over independent developers.
  • Big publishers are expected (and are geared up) to produce games with high production values. This is expensive and the publishers need to believe that they will be able to recoup their investment.
  • For publishers to  speak of the iPhone and iPod Touch in the same breath as the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, they will need to see high quality products and comparable price points; if they can make a higher margin on the Apple products, so much the better.

But I think that Apple’s strategy is flawed. Sure, Apple needs to find a way to ensure that consumers get good value for money and that poor quality content is weeded out from the AppStore. But creating an artificial barrier that says “big budget = better value for our customer” is a curious move. It will stifle growth, it will lead to escalating costs of development (which is not the same as improvement in quality) and it ends the pretence that Apple is not trying to control its platform in the way that mobile operators control the handset decks or Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have an iron grip on the content available on their platforms.

The AppStore was one of Apple’s greatest innovations, allowing Apps to be distributed quickly and simply across a simple platform. Now Apple has its work cut out to maintain the quality level of that content. But to my mind, making the top price point only available to those who will spend the most on development (which is not the same as making the best game) is a retrograde step.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com